Soap on a phone

Texting? Old news. Soap opera is the latest killer content for mobiles, reports Meg Carter
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The torrid adventures of Tess, a DJ living on the party island of Ibiza with her dodgy boyfriend Nick, form the core of the latest soap opera from Endemol, the television production company behind such large-scale projects as Big Brother, Restoration and Fame Academy.

You might surmise from this that Endemol are hoping that Tess will have every teenager and twenty-something glued to their television screens, transfixed by her Balearic capers. But you would be wrong. Endemol would be happy if that young audience turned the television off and went off out with its mates.

Because Endemol is planning to send the adventures of Tess (or FanTESStic, as the soap is called) direct to the viewers' mobile phones. In so doing, it will be creating a new broadcasting medium.

Viewers eager to follow Tess and her exploits will receive 16 weeks-worth of daily episodes broadcast to their mobile via multi-media messaging (MMS). Each episode of FanTESStic is, in effect, a comic strip comprising five pictures with accompanying dialogue. Subscribers can either pay 50p per episode or £1.50 for five. For the time being the plot will unfold through pictures and words. Soon though, Endemol hopes to create original, live-action entertainment content for third generation (3G) mobile phones.

"The idea to do a mobile soap came out of our TV drama department in the Netherlands," Endemol International's director of interactive media, Peter Cowley, explains. "Having already developed text-based mobile-phone content linked to a number of shows, we now believe there is considerable potential in creating original content for MMS as mobile is fast becoming a legitimate entertainment medium in its own right."

Until now, "mobile content" has meant basic text (SMS) services - such as breaking news, football results or television programme alerts to remind viewers to tune in or, in the case of Big Brother, updates on housemates' latest antics. The exception has been the 3G network 3 whose customers now access live-action moving images via mobile. For the time being, though, 3 has far fewer customers than more established networks. Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, meanwhile, are yet to roll out their own advanced mobile services and 3G handsets - many of which are due to be sold on high streets this Christmas.

Small wonder, then, that those wanting to develop mobile content are testing the water with MMS - although much of what's been done so far has involved in-bound MMS with viewers watching television programmes encouraged to submit comments and even images via their phone. In Five's recent Cosmetic Surgery Live, for example, viewers were offered the chance to seek cosmetic advice via their mobiles by sending in MMS pictures of "problem" body parts.

As mobile phones grow increasingly sophisticated, however, out-bound broadcasting of original mobile content is attracting growing interest. "While we have already had some success with streaming entertainment to 3 subscribers, the real creative challenge lies not in re-cycling television material but creating exclusive mobile content," Cowley explains. "We aim to use MMS to understand how best to move into mobile live-action." And Endemol is not alone.

Also launching later this month is an MMS "broadcast" service linked to the Channel 4 teen drama Hollyoaks created by Conker Media, the digital and new-media division of the Hollyoaks' producer Mersey TV. Conker has developed sub-plot storylines featuring the show's familiar characters, which will only be accessible via MMS.

"We've already begun producing exclusive Hollyoaks content for broadband internet users. Now we're doing the same for mobile phones. As with FanTESStic it involves one daily MMS episode of up to five images with accompanying dialogue," says Lee Hardman, Conker Media's head.

"It's a great step forward for the show's production team - enabling them to develop storylines they can't do on-air, and taking characters to exotic locations we might not otherwise be able to afford," he adds. To produce each image, actors are shot against a green screen and then superimposed over still shots of various backdrops.

Given the low production costs involved and the fact that, like Endemol, Conker intends to charge mobile phone users between £1.50 and £2 a week, original mobile content using MMS sounds a bit like money for old rope. But while both companies readily admit their long-term hope is for a new revenue stream, each insists they are simply responding to current industry and consumer trends. "There's been a complete transformation in how people interact with media," Cowley says. "The broadcast industry, meanwhile, is moving more and more in the direction of multi-platform content that steers away from TV-only formats."

"Today's young people don't care so much whether they are consuming content via TV or PC - the boundaries have already blurred. What matters most is getting the content they want when they want it," agrees Jon Williams, head of new media at advertising agency Publicis, who is monitoring developments closely.

Mobile-phone companies, meanwhile, are seeking new ways to extract money from existing customers as mobile-phone penetration plateaus, adds Jez Jowett, a director of Cake which creates entertainment content for brands. "Original mobile content is the way things are going," he believes. "But unlike the internet - where there's still a widespread assumption among users that content should come for free, consumers of mobile content are ready and willing to pay."

While the potential rewards for phone network and producer are clear, a fundamental question remains: will consumers really want mobile content enough to buy it? Which is why TV, advertising and telecoms players will be following DJ Tess's exploits just as keenly as the teenagers with dreams of clubbing in Ibiza.